“Marlene Dietrich was used as a camera subject instead of as a person. She’s photographed behind veils and fishnets, while dwarfs slither about and bells ring and everybody tries to look degenerate.”
– Pauline Kael (1)

“Catherine must escape being swallowed by the décor and avoid having her individuality obliterated by the forms and desires of others, becoming a doll or a statue rather than a person. […] The choice presented by The Scarlet Empress is either to become immobile and décor-like or to get behind the décor, to use it for your ends and thus become self-moved.”|
– Leo Braudy (2)

“… to find camp in Sternberg is not to surrender to the joys of […] over-decorated irrelevance. It is, rather, to appreciate the wit by which Sternberg renders his insights artificial: to sense something of an ‘affaire’ between Dietrich and her director; to perceive the deep significance of appearances – a sumptuous surface that serves not as an empty and meaningless background, but as the very subject of the films: a visual context for Sternberg’s fantasies.”
– Jack Babuscio (3)

Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate collaboration with star-muse Marlene Dietrich is ostensibly an extravagant bio-pic/costume drama depicting the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia during the mid-18th century. Yet, even at the level of historical narrative, much of the film’s plotline is encapsulated in lengthy intertitles suggestive of a kind of purple-prosed period epic where major story events are rather breathlessly summarised (sample: “Suddenly like a swift storm appeared a messenger of Russia – a vast empire that had built its foundations on ignorance, violence, fear and oppression”). This narrational device, at one level, could represent a quasi-homage to the modalities of silent cinema, where the director had distinguished himself, notably, in movies such as The Salvation Hunters (1925) and The Docks of New York (1928). Equally, however, it sets up a tension between the sort of standard spectacle we might think we ought to be seeing, and another very different species of spectacle: the highly stylised celluloid realm of Sternberg. Or, as D. K. Holm puts it: “You don’t go to many places as weird and lush […] as the 18th century of Josef von Sternberg’s imagination” (4).

Central to the sphere of Sternberg’s filmic mindscape is Dietrich, here portraying German princess Sophia Fredericka, who, played as a very young girl by Dietrich’s real-life daughter Maria, is shown, in the opening scenes, tucked up in bed, being tended by the family doctor who also, somewhat bizarrely, doubles as the local hangman. On being informed of his other occupation, the child naively inquires, “Hangman? What’s a hangman? Can I become a hangman some day?” An official obliges by stating his intention to relate to her the atrocities committed by the Russian despots Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

What follows is a storybook montage of graphically imagined punishments executed upon helpless citizenry, rounded up and subjected to various means of ritual extinction, including strangulation, decapitation, and being burnt at the stake, all climaxing in one poor wretch substituting for a head-banging clapper inside a giant bell. The latter image dissolves to a frolicsome overhead shot of a now grown-up Sophia being pushed by ladies-in-waiting on a swing, her hooped skirt furnishing a graphic match rhyming with the ghastly clanger.

As we try to properly absorb any number of disturbing psychological and thematic associations, one thing is certain: we’re out of the usual comfort zone established by most big-budget “golden-era” Hollywood studio filmmaking. Such an abrupt culture-shock could especially apply to a contemporaneous 1934 audience accustomed to considerably tamer royalty romances such as Richard Boleslawski’s Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), and Paul Czinner’s own treatment of the legendary Tsarina’s tale, The Rise of Catherine the Great, rush-released earlier in the same year.

Each of these reputable “prestige” vehicles feature, respectively, the three Broadway-trained Barrymores (John, Ethel, and Lionel); a larger-than-life, Oscar-winning Charles Laughton; gorgeously stoic Greta Garbo; and Elisabeth Bergner, a graduate of what Andrew Sarris describes as “that fluttery, fussy Viennese tradition” (5). All of them (excepting perhaps Garbo-Christina’s privileged flashes of extra-diegetic self-irony) exhibit in their monarchist roles what looks now like occasionally arch, generically appropriate Character-Acting. Conversely, Dietrich, under Sternberg’s aegis, projects someone (or something) hovering between personality and persona, a figural mask, constantly slipping between the three- and two-dimensional. More recent points of comparison would not, for instance, be Helen Mirren in The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) or even Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lord, 2011), but possibly a merging of the performative registers of pop divas Madonna and Lady Gaga, both of them entities almost inconceivable without the variable template originally set by the Sternberg-Dietrich renditions of the liquidly sculptural feminine.

Across a scenario that charts Catherine’s physical and emotional journey from provincial innocence to worldly experience, Dietrich strikes poses and gestural attitudes in response not only to a fascinating array of supporting players but also to the film’s utterly overwhelming mise en scène. Sternberg orchestrates a spatial fantasia created by art-director Hans Dreier’s highly atmospheric set-design, with its grotesquely contorted statuary sculpted by Peter Ballbusch and gaudily twisted icons painted by Richard Kollorsz, the exaggerated costumery courtesy of Travis Banton. Ably abetted by Bert Glennon’s luminous cinematography the director shapes a veritable universe of glimmering light and oppressive shade which he, himself is famously quoted as considering “a ruthless excursion into style” (6). The key descriptor in this observation might be “ruthless” since what Dietrich’s Catherine must contend with, amongst other aspects, on arrival at the Russian court, is the densely textured, intricately detailed enormity of the court itself, the very weight of its physical dimensions, the cruelly grim and anguished countenances of the numerous gargoyles that punctuate its interiors. In a certain sense, the initially gullible passive reactor must actively test her new environment and carve out her turf within it.

One outstanding sequence where the personal within Catherine’s behavioural repertoire comes to the fore is the justly acclaimed staging of the wedding ceremony during which an impressionable child-woman is forced to face the full scale and insidious nature of the challenges before her. Seduced by handsome Alexei (John Lodge), the emissary sent from the Kremlin to accompany her to Russia, and duped by him into believing that her intended husband-to-be, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), is nothing short of a sensitive, intelligent stud-muffin, Dietrich’s Catherine is confronted by beautifully lensed close-ups of what her spouse actually is: a grinning idiot, munching upon holy wafers as if they were so many potato crisps.

Interspersed with shots of a marital partner she now senses to be a dangerously unhinged imbecile, are other apparent reverse-shot images of an attractively concerned-seeming Alexei. Yet we don’t see Alexei positioned in any kind of establishing shot, and, as Robin Wood perceptively notes, his “location in the décor is never defined, though we know precisely where everyone else is” (7). Dietrich’s Catherine can literally not get the picture of Alexei out of her head, a persistent, psycho-visual reminder that has her hyperventilating and shedding a tear, as Sternberg cuts in closer and closer and an adjacent votive candle all but loses the symbolic flame she still carries. Or, as Wood’s supremely evocative appraisal of this sublime moment attests:

In the sustained close-ups of Catherine, two expressive features stand out: the pleading so eloquently conveyed by her eyes, and the physical reality of her breath as the candle before her mouth repeatedly wavers and is almost extinguished: the effect is like watching the quickened beating of her heart. (8)

The wavering subjectivity of Catherine’s epiphany is of course further enhanced by the surrounding claustrophobic materiality of impersonal religious pomp and circumstance, as banners are paraded, smoking censers are waved, and choral voices are raised in counterpoint to the brusque tying of the marital couple’s hands in enforced wedlock. The segment closes on a low-angle, gleefully beaming close-up of Louise Dresser’s boisterously blunt Dowager Empress determined that her “brood mare” daughter-in-law will deliver a male heir to the Russian throne.

In order to narratively meet the expectation that she bear a regal successor, Dietrich’s Catherine must work past the personal and develop the resources of a politically and sexually powerful persona that will attain control of her imperilled status. If anything, she must cease to be a person and become an empowered regal pin-up-girl, combating the machinery around her with the machinations of her own self-aware guile and physical allure. She must cannily work with, and against, the hide-bound rituals, not-too-carefully kept secret intrigues, and Machiavellian treacheries that impinge, with such ruthless style, upon her.

Catherine is compelled to cool-headedly get over her desire for the feckless Alexei and entertain a virtual army of seducible suitors, in scenes where the actress’ knowing winks, louche vocal drawl, and calculating side-glances transport us over to the cine-sphere of another Paramount female siren, the redoubtable Mae West. An extremely drawn-out, delayed reaction which Dietrich elicits when Catherine is threatened by Peter’s sullen female accomplice, Lizzie (Ruthelma Stevens), looks downright lewd, as she sizes up and silently ridicules her rival with quasi-erotic, “Westian” relish. The power-play in which she engages with a brazenly menacing Peter across a banquet table, where a cleric is requesting alms for the poor, constitutes a model lesson in elegantly negotiated advance-and-retreat. Gliding in and out, and around her characterisation, the actress also underscores, as has been noted by various commentators, a kind of meta-textual, self-referential allegory outlining her own early screen career with Catherine standing in for Marlene, Alexei for Sternberg, the Russian court for the Hollywood Dream Factory.

In The Scarlet Empress Dietrich-as-camera-subject strategically utilises those veils and fishnets towards express purposeful ends (which Catherine’s persona indeed does in two memorable instances, one involving a kiss, the other, a pointed bayonet). She must re-generate social conventions and ring her own bell, rather than permit her narrative destiny to be “tolled” by others. Between them, Dietrich’s Catherine and Sternberg, the inspired sculptor of her figural contours, must finally shatter and transcend the traps and trappings of studio-genre constraints, so that the German princess whom a doctor has prescribed to be put in a harness can finally ride to glory in a male Hussar’s white uniform. Surfaces sometimes can prove to bear meaningful substance, and what might superficially resemble over-decorative camp can offer its own joyful textual relevance. Again, in the judicious words of Robin Wood, one of the film’s most cogent advocates, with characteristically careful regard to the film’s finale: “The culmination is one of Hollywood’s most ambiguous and devastating happy endings: the heroine triumphs over all adversity – at the expense of her humanity, and perhaps her sanity” (9).


  1. Pauline Kael, “The Scarlet Empress”, Pauline Kael Reviews A-Z: http://www.geocities.ws/paulinekaelreviews/s2.html.
  2. Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame: What we see in Films, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1976, p. 89.
  3. Jack Babuscio, “The Cinema of Camp (aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility)”, Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Cleto, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1999, p. 130.
  4. D. K. Holm, “The Scarlet Empress: The Criterion Collection”, The DVD Journal 2001: http://www.dvdjournal.com/reviews/s/scarletempress_cc.shtml.
  5. Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1966, p. 39.
  6. Sternberg cited in Jeffrey M. Anderson, “The Scarlet Empress”, Combustible Celluloid 30 August 2001: http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/classic/scarletemp.shtml.
  7. Robin Wood, Personal Views: Explorations in Film, Gordon Fraser, London, 1976, p. 107.
  8. Wood, p. 107.
  9. Robin Wood, “Josef von Sternberg”, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Vol 1: Films, ed. Christopher Lyon, St James Press, London, 1984, p. 415.

The Scarlet Empress (1934 USA 104 mins)

Prod Co: Paramount Dir: Josef von Sternberg Scr: Manuel Komroff, based on the diary of Catherine II of Russia Phot: Bert Glennon Ed: Sam Winston Art Dir: Hans Dreier Statues: Peter Ballbusch Icons & paintings: Richard Kollorsz Mus: Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Wagner; arranged by John M. Leopold and W. Frank Harding; additional music by Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon, “and a supporting cast of 1000 players”

About The Author

Peter Kemp is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in cinema studies in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

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